Canadian crime fiction author Mel Bradshaw is my guest today on Moving Target. His new crime novel Fire on the Runway is the second adventure that features Detective Sergeant Paul Shenstone. The novel opens with a fatal grenade explosion in a west-end Toronto hotel room. The room’s registered occupant, a European woman who calls herself Lucy, disappears before she can shed any light on the incident. Shenstone believes someone is trying to assassinate her.
A native Torontonian, Mel has never felt confined by genre in his crime novels. Each of his books focuses on violent death and its attendant problems, to which he adds well-drawn characters, romance, thoughtful themes and period details. In short, everything that’s needed for a good read.
His first three novels, Death in the Age of Steam, Quarrel With the Foe and Victim Impact, were set in three different time periods. In his fourth, Fire on the Runway, published by Dundurn this spring, he returns to the 1920s, and the milieu and characters of Quarrel With the Foe.
In your new book, Fire on the Runway, why did you return to the 1920s and to the detective you introduced in Quarrel with the Foe eight years ago?
Blame it on my interest in spy fiction. I had thought I might write about the development of defence technology between the two world wars. While researching that, I stumbled on a more shocking secret that I felt I had to write about, one that threatened a new war in Europe. But I needed a Canadian angle. My solution was to throw a seductive Soviet defector in the path of my Toronto police detective, Paul Shenstone.
How important is research to a mystery writer? It’s fiction, so can’t you just make it all up?
People read historical fiction to learn something about earlier times. Some writers say they change certain facts in the interest of creating a better story. But for me, the awkward, inconvenient facts are the ones that end up making the best stories. For example, it was very late in my writing Death in the Age of Steam that I learned who was eligible to testify in a court of law in Canada in 1856. I had to throw out a good chunk of manuscript and start over. But the novel is much the better for it. Truer to history and better grounded in its time.
Do you base your principal characters on real people you know or have read about?
My main characters have multiple sources, not all of which I’m aware of. The only single source character in the Shenstone series is the University of Toronto chemistry professor who does forensic analysis for the police. The character I have called Dalton Linacre is based in appearance and opinions on the real-life Joslyn Rogers. There was no need to create a composite character: the historical Rogers was a one-man crime lab and simply couldn’t be improved upon.
Many people can imagine writing a short story. But a novel is such a big project, tens of thousands of words. Where and how do you begin? With a plot outline?
I begin with a lot of reading and journal entries on what I read. Not just facts, but the plot and character ideas sparked by them. When I think I have enough for a novel, I try to get down a first draft as quickly as possible. The second draft will be slow and painstaking, and may end up very different from the first draft. I think I would find a plot outline confining. Ideas come while I write: I’d either have to stifle them or keep changing the outline.
Tell us about your writing rituals. Do you have a favourite time of day for writing? Do you keep regular hours? Do you set yourself a quota of words or minutes per writing session?
Generally I’m a morning person, at my desk by about seven. When I started writing full-time, I liked to set myself a minimum of six hours a day. My time sheets were painfully detailed. Now, I figure my habits are formed, so I no longer keep track.
How do you deal with criticism of your writing? Are you open enough – and tough enough – to benefit from editors’ and readers’ suggestions?
Writers are more often ignored than criticized, so I appreciate anyone who takes the trouble to make suggestions. You do have to toughen up a bit and realize that it’s your skill that’s being dissected, not your soul. And you can choose which readers to listen to closely. The publisher’s editors are a different matter. They have to be listened to. I try to accommodate them where I can and push back in the few instances where I feel I must.
Is there a single piece of advice you’d give someone who wants to write crime fiction?
Read the kind of book you want to write. Don’t be afraid of being influenced. Your individuality isn’t that fragile.
What actor would you like to play Paul Shenstone in a movie adaptation of the book, and why?
I didn’t conceive of Paul with a particular actor in mind. But how about Joseph Gordon-Leavitt? He’s the right age, has demonstrated his crime movie chops in the films Looper, Brick and Premium Rush. And, without being too pretty, he’s handsome enough to interest women.
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Visit Mel on his website.